Séverine Le Blévennec, Global Head of Treasury at Aliaxis, the Brussels-based multinational pipe and fittings group for the water sector, began her treasury career in 1999 as an interim treasury analyst in bank reconciliation at GMAC, the former finance arm of General Motors. Four months in, she was hired full-time as a money market dealer, opening the door to seven years of a roller coaster, heady treasury experience and a front row seat in corporate decline as the company struggled to keep its head above water.
Aliaxis operates in over 40 countries. The company designs sustainable, easy to install and innovative solutions to address the world’s water challenges and accelerate the transition to clean energy.
Le Blévennec progressed from the back office to managing GMAC’s in-house bank operations. Other standout responsibilities include working in a team managing the €6bn balance sheet, helping oversee a large (€4bn) commercial paper programme and managing liquidity at the group’s European affiliates. “In terms of empowerment, it was quite something,” she says. “I started with no knowledge and learnt everything on the job.”
She recounts many successes. Like transforming back office processes by introducing a new system that linked and visualised the funding, hedging and loan book that included a MTN programme and syndicated loans.
Later, she joined GMAC’s Strategic Funding Initiatives Group, landing “in the hot seat” involved in bank meetings, debt negotiation and securing credit lines for hundreds of millions of euros as GMAC’s financial health grew more perilous and the treasury team became ever more creative. “When I arrived, the company was top-rated; when I left it was junk,” she says, flashing her quick, wry humour that peppers the conversation. One of the most hair-raising (and thrilling) transactions included a €1bn first-of-its-kind securitisation deal with Deutsche Bank, structured on the eve of the financial crisis before the risks of securitisation unravelled. “It was so interesting and really gave me a chance to contribute.”
Warming to a theme that recurs throughout her conversation with Treasury Today, Le Blévennec explains one of the most memorable aspects of her time at GMAC was the high level of autonomy and trust. This was possible because GMAC’s treasury function was almost flat and access to the Treasurer was easy, she recalls. “I was just a treasury analyst when I arrived, but the Treasurer would come to Brussels regularly, and I knew him well.” The Brussels team, housed together in one office, was agile and this agility, together with her proximity to leadership, became the two aspects of treasury she missed most in her next role – and which she seeks to nurture most in her current role at Aliaxis.
Just before GMAC closed its European treasury, Le Blévennec was given the chance to move to Detroit. In the end she declined the opportunity, mostly because she was hoping to start a family and didn’t want to be working in the US where there is no mandatory parental leave. She thought (briefly) about joining the investor relations team in New York, but an approach from a head-hunter opened the door to the next leg of her career, Manager, EMEA Treasury, at US industrial group Honeywell in 2006.
Honeywell already had a strong and mature treasury function, a critical factor in her decision to accept the role, convinced she would be able to “help, contribute and learn from a good base.” She was also drawn to the company’s informal culture at the time. For example, still recovering from an operation, she was interviewed by her boss in her own home. “It was very unusual,” she says, admitting the unorthodox interview was also down to her own impatience and instinctive desire to accelerate next steps – another theme that runs throughout her career.
She was also attracted to the vague job description attached to the role, spotting an opening to shape it and make the job her own. “Being able to keep that creative aspect that I like in treasury, attracted me.” Like GMAC, Honeywell also ran an in-house bank where she learnt new skills in cash management. Not long into the role she began to manage people, process-optimisation and digitisation projects followed, including implementing robotics in 2018, initially for the in-house bank, but then rolled out globally. “Our hard work and innovation has been recognised by numerous international awards and we established Honeywell Treasury as a benchmark,” she says.
Le Blévennec also took a very active role in communicating with various public authorities (EU Parliament, Belgian Finance ministry, ESMA) on the impact of financial regulation, flagging unintended consequences and negative impacts on the real economy. “This required a whole different set of skills but the success in that area was very rewarding,” she recalls.
Looking back on the fifteen years Le Blévennec stayed at Honeywell, a few key themes emerge. In the last years, the company’s mature treasury organisation and processes ultimately resulted in a disproportionally global governance. This led to local initiatives sometimes hitting the buffers because of red tape and bureaucracy. She came to recognise how much she valued flexibility and the opportunity to think creatively, outside the box. “Over the years, I was very proud of what we achieved, and I learnt a lot at Honeywell,” she says.
Her next step up the career ladder landed her in her current role. But it wasn’t a quick or easy decision. Le Blévennec spent over a year discussing and chewing over the potential role, leading to many sleepless nights. One reason for her caution was unknowns around Aliaxis’s corporate culture. Although she found elements of US corporate culture at GMAC and Honeywell challenging, she knew it was an environment where she could perform and that suited her. In contrast, Aliaxis is a privately owned, European company. “It was a big change,” she says. Much of her due diligence involved understanding how the executive committee and Board worked, and ensuring she would be empowered by senior management with the right resources, and the company had the maturity to scale up.
As it turned out, joining Aliaxis has been rather like a homecoming. Mostly because she has been set free to add value and transform the company’s treasury function at an accelerated pace. Rather than change being perceived as disruptive, it is welcomed as the company builds out multiple new functions in its transformation from a federation of local companies into one group with a multinational vision and new purpose. “I am a change agent and I love it,” she says.
Since she took the helm in June 2021 the company has been assigned a rating, entered the capital markets, joined the SWIFT network, implemented a new treasury management system, and a payment hub she is now rolling-out on a global basis to automate payment processes.
And the list goes on. Aliaxis’s treasury has selected new banking partners in four EU countries and LATAM and is currently finalising the implementation of a global liquidity structure. She is also designing new treasury policies before centralising FX processes. Oh, and she’s changing the team structure. “When I came, nobody could say who worked in treasury outside Brussels.” In short, under her watch, the perception of treasury within the company has changed as she builds a new department from scratch, following her own clear roadmap with all the resources she needs, galvanised by positive feedback and an enthusiastic team. “In my first year we entered the 1990s and now we have arrived in the 2000s!” she laughs, continuing: “We still have a way to go, but most importantly we are driving in a straight line rather than going in circles and we know exactly where we are going.”
Twenty five years ago, treasury was not that different to accountancy, but over time treasury has become a business partner, adding value to processes and playing a strategic role.
A crucial element to success is agile governance grounded in the support of her CFO whose faith and trust in her (and own globe-trotting schedule as the company grows) means they rarely meet in person. “It’s not just lip service, I really have support,” she says. Moreover, treasury works closely with Aliaxis’s growing head office where she can feed-off interaction with high level employees and the energy found at the hub of a company in growth mode.
Le Blévennec describes her current role as a crystallisation of everything she has learnt through the years. Whether treasury technology or team management, bank regulation, funding knowledge or experience of the money market industry, garnered in those early days at GMAC and built on at Honeywell, all her experience has come together in her current role. “Throughout the years, one by one, I have added new skills. Now here I come, and I need them all,” she says. “I understand why I only got this job now.”
It’s a store of treasury knowledge and experience that puts the extent of her current task in context and makes her mindful it’s not for everyone. “Treasury transformation is something you either love and find empowering, or fills you with fear,” she says. On tough days, she reminds herself of the single most important treasury mantra – to add value. Thinking long-term, and unlocking that value add for the next generation, also anchors her when her every day is particularly hectic. “At Aliaxis, long-term isn’t the next three years; it’s the next 25 years,” she says.
It leads her to recall an early decision, just days into her new role, to pull the plug on an RFP for a new treasury management module. Opting instead for a different model – that she still delivered on time – confirmed the company’s agile governance and her guiding belief that if treasury can promise a return on investment and benefit for the company, she can get things done.
Longer-term, she hopes to create a carved-out treasury function, separated from the rest of the finance function. She is spending increasing amounts of time working with the company’s treasury teams in the regions. It calls to mind her own experience of regional treasury, when contact with and feedback from head office was often limited. In today’s role reversal, she makes time to explain the rationale for calls on the regions for data, ensuring robust communication and training on hand as she works through roadblocks on the way to creating a global treasury community. “My leadership style is hands on,” she says, adding that positive energy in the team and the support from other departments across the company like the legal, tax and tech teams, drive her on.
As the conversation draws to a close, Le Blévennec reflects on today’s treasury landscape and the key trends transforming the sector. Treasury has had to integrate a swathe of regulations whether Basel requirements or Dodd Frank, SEPA and the LIBOR transition all the while keeping across changing KYC in a process that requires close relationships with banks and an ability to manage different layers of complexity, noise, and product awareness. Regulation has and will continue to drive huge change, placing constraints on companies but also ushering in opportunities along the way, she predicts.
The regulatory wave has contributed to the other key trend in treasury: technology. When she started out, just having daily visibility of cash was considered an achievement. “Now we have APIs. Boom!” she laughs. The explosion in technology has led to new cyber risks and ushered in the next generation of services and fintechs supporting treasury’s strategic journey. It has also led to demand for new technology skills in treasury. “Twenty five years ago, treasury was not that different to accountancy, but over time treasury has become a business partner, adding value to processes and playing a strategic role,” she says.
ESG will shape the next regulatory onslaught. Le Blévennec believes treasury needs to prepare for climate regulation that will include taxonomies and demand for comparable criteria from regulators, credit rating providers and society. She believes treasury is uniquely positioned to provide an ESG filter to every part of the corporate function right down to the carbon footprint of storing archived data. “Ultimately, every single product in treasury, and whole treasury ecosystem, will need to be revisited,” she predicts. Elsewhere she notices in some companies, treasurers are now in charge of ESG as integration switches from being a function run by the communications team to a bolder, treasury-led strategy.
The “G” of ESG is well integrated in treasury because of its inherent focus on risk management but the “S,” she says, has been overlooked and integration here remains in the foothills.
She believes treasury needs to improve its diversity and women remain under-represented, particularly at a senior level. “Women are not a minority, there is no excuse,” she says. She also finds it surprising, given treasury’s focus on values like communication, partnerships, and stakeholder management. Perhaps it’s a consequence of many women struggling to achieve a work life balance in the profession. She, after all, turned down a move to US because she wanted to start a family.
Through the course of her career, she has gone from being against the idea of diversity quotas to a firm supporter of a system that ensures a percentage of jobs are awarded to under-represented candidates. “It’s the only way to truly speed up the process,” she says, another eye on that ticking clock. As for her next steps, and if she harbours ambition to boost the number of under-represented women at the very top of finance, she says she’s arrived where she’s always wanted to be. “I have only ever wanted to be a Treasurer in a company where there is alignment between my values and the corporate values. Aliaxis’ Dare, Care and Deliver values are very powerful and a real day-to-day inspiration. This is my top job.”